Highway Pastoral

I will readily admit, friends, that being on the road this past summer has not been easy for me. I used to have total peace about being away and occupying my days with the single-minded zen of safely burning miles under my wheels week after week. These days, my mind has instead been somewhere else: on the people that I miss, the friends and family and love we’ve found in Texas, the projects that can’t be done inside the confines of a tractor, good meals and stationary sleep and exercise, actual quality time with my husband, and a million other lifestyle choices that one sacrifices when they drive truck. In its shadow, the simple joy of driving and working feels leeched away, paled, and the days limp along.

But there is one source of unchecked bliss before me every day, in full surround technicolored splendor. I get to see the corners of the country sometimes within the span of seven days, in its variety and breadth, through seasons and sunplay and the caprice of weather. I may drive the same routes, but no viewing is the same. I am audience to micro-dramas that change within the hour and play for those who wish to watch. I may not be able to stop and climb those trees or swim that river, but the fact that I can see it at all, and so much of it, wearing all its faces, is something I cannot and will not take for granted.

As much as I enjoy my solo peep shows into the nude beauty of the natural world, I feel compelled to share it with you in the medium that is always available to me. This blog is one of those transcendentalist odes of sort. For those craft colleagues of mine who are sharp readers, please forgive the bald pathetic fallacy in this entry, as you might have already seen it flirting in this introduction. When you drive alone for over ten hours a day like I do, you tend to develop a very personal relationship with the impartial wild and all who dwell in it.

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My pastoral is one cut through with roads: tarred scores on the surface of my continent that carry me over its attempt at healing: see the asphalt buckle with roots and hardy weeds, its slide into disintegration from runoff and the slough of erosion. Everywhere infested with cows, like black fleas chewing on the scrub-covered skin of the landscape. Better like that though than in the fly traps of the slaughter yards. The highway is sometimes its own guillotine, and I always find breathing wildlife to be infinitely more charming. The cattle is one thing, but to glimpse gamboling horses, living deer, plump ravens and playful finches and hungry raptors, the daring of raccoons and armadillos, searching turtles and field mice, or even the rare gift of foxes and coyotes, is enough to make all the trials of the days or weeks melt into the tar that feels responsible for my suffering in the first place. It feels an even graver sin though when one of these creatures is eaten by my truck. Those are the times that only add to the list of sacrifices we drivers make daily.

But all worthy sacrifices should be the price for glimpsing heaven. In parched and yellowed Texas, dips from crumbling shoulders trap water and create the most wonderful tide pools of green clover and prodigious blue bonnets. In the rainy season, its southwestern cohort transforms from desert into lush jungles-in-miniature, and even the stark sun cannot challenge the twilight thundershowers that turn the colors up to eleven, saturated with ozone. I outrun the storm in Arizona only to see the distant mountains and ridges ahead veiled in more blue summer rain. In the morning, red clay beds bleed orange blood into the watersheds, a conflagration under the dawning turquoise sky.

There is about one week in spring when California bends to peer pressure and tries to be green. But eight days later, it has shed its blush and is sallow again, brush ready for burning. Instead the sun goes hot pink behind thick smoke, and I know a hill a few miles away is being lapped at by a tide of fire. Further north, the alpine mountains near Shasta fare a little better and destine that I will be in wooded western Oregon soon. I only wish it were harder for me to speed down those inclines so I could peek through into the valleys ahead, waiting for me. But I will know them intimately too, and wind up into Washington and the Columbia river on hairpin state roads. The canyons and gulches that cut through the Canadian border are glimpses into the bones of the rivers that I can’t delve, at least yet. Luckier recreational drivers have that privilege of paddling and swimming and sailing. But I must keep moving.

The road through Idaho is a little more reserved, more about understatement, and coyly insinuates at dramatic vistas beyond my reach. Craggy Utah gives me some release, with the small cost of escaping Salt Lake City and the hailstorm that pummels the cliffs and wakes up Chris. Eleven in the morning and the dark skies follow me all day until I have to wait for the front to outrace me back east. Even in the Midwest, I can see the rings of the continent’s growth in plateau striations, ribbons of sediment like pages in a book I can barely read. But I am learning this old language of cycles and seasons, give and take, movement between plenty and paucity, and its diminished pidgin spoken in my own brief life.

To witness what I can of these long and short arcs of interdependent play is a generous gift; one I feel undeserving of, considering my species’ role in the acceleration of our environment’s entropy. But without that insurgence, I would not be on these roads, winding through the carved mountains and beaten plains, dammed rivers and bridged canyons, to witness any of it at all. I sometimes fantasize about pioneers moving west, seeing the untouched land and big sky undiluted by artificial light, but the romantic is quickly sat down by the pragmatist, who does not envy the months-long wagon ride, the starvation, and the subjective antagonism of a natural world that caters to no one and every one, better hunters than us included.

Last winter, driving through Pennsylvania and New England, the snow-clad woods were burnished with copper and gold and bronze just weeks previous. Harvest season was always my favorite, or the first dewy days of new spring: the liminal times when change is at its most tangible and the crisp air hints at warmth before or behind. The depths of winter or summer, in the regions that have such distinctions, were always too monotonous for me. But there is beauty in a sky you just know has snow in it, and in mere hours you are proven right, and in the constant clash and fervor and flash floods from summer thunderstorms. This year there always seems to be one flirting in the horizon beyond Cheyenne or Omaha, purple with lightning. Our home in North Texas, too, is green again after it’s had more than its fair share to drink.

As I move back down south, the land becomes stifled again with heat and people, and my passage marked more by neon and fluorescence at every mile, turning the trees to stark grayscale. Still better to travel at night, where the sight distance might be shorter, but if the moon is high, everything is cast into silver relief. I’m usually lucky enough to see at least one shooting star, in between blinks. I and the other nocturnals are briefly blinded by the five a.m. fog banks, cresting and receding like waves in the change of altitude. In the Ozarks or Tennessee Smokies, they can be so thick you might as well be driving through the sky itself, instead of just in a small part of it. Climbing a bridge free from the tree line, I can see the whole boneyard of naked woods and white-paneled farmhouses. After a rain, the hills reek of wet pine and woodsmoke, and I would much rather be with the creatures making their bed in the damp, dark soil. But I will be awake to see the dawn. I drive on through the mosquito-choked cities of the Bible Belt, their hordes hunting for the sugared-tea blood of other travelers on highways named after sweets.

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We are gluttons too, reaping the plenitude of the earth, often taking more than we should. I am beholden to my own share, taking in energy and leaving waste in its wake. In this age we do not live as closely according to the cycles that sculpted the land into being and continues to in its slow progress. Though these are the same cycles that first taught us how to live, also. We humans are fools to think that we are apart from this world, above or below it, princes of it or pawns. We are as much the cause and consequence of change as the seasons and elements and the other forms of life that exist beside us. However, we possess the gift of choice: choice over how we live, what we take in and what we give out, what paths we take. With each one of these choices, we shape our world. I can only hope my role is as small as it is large, and that my place in this entanglement strikes more balance and not less. I burn the biodiesel that allows me to see so much, traveling on the roads that have forever altered the face of the planet. Without that though, I may not have ever fully appreciated how valuable and fragile and interdependent our home really is.

You will never see me get on a pulpit or even in front of a protest. I do not vie for parties or positions. You will never see me write something politicized. That is not my path. But you will see me encourage others to be their best selves, and to continue this story for as long as we can. Because I have seen it written on the face of the land, painted in strokes of cataclysm and restoration, life and death, fullness and void, sacrifice and reward. This world teems and teeters around us, despite of us, because of us, for us, and with us, whether we’re paying attention or not. And I highly recommend we pay attention.

2 thoughts on “Highway Pastoral

  1. Kudos for the truly awesome word painting you ave created of your travels across our nation.

    It is rich in the depth of words that paint in one’s mind a picture of a varied and great nation.

    Thank you…..

    PS
    This one definitely should be submitted to those truckers magazines I see at the TA.

    plus based only on the first paragraph you know that if you truly wanted to that CDL would earn you a great paycheck right here in the DFW area or if you wanted more freedom over in West Texas driving a tanker… i’m just saying if I read that paragraph right your CDL is a golden ticket and you can be home every night.

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    1. Thank you, sir! Chris and I are considering phasing out of trucking completely around next spring. We’ve considered doing local gigs but that means we couldn’t team and would probably still be working really strange hours. We’re looking to eventually get back into the workforce to have some of those lifestyle creature comforts back and reenter academia. But you have my curiosity piqued and I’ll see if there’s anything promising in the area!

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